Circumstantial Racist

There is a statute of limitations on circumstantial racism. It ends the day we collide with the realization that in our ignorance, our privilege has plowed someone over. If in that moment we retreat, what once was circumstantial becomes premeditated.

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 I fled the scene of my first teaching job in Baltimore City, accused of being a racist by the principal.

Those of you who know me now may find this surprising.

YOU??!!

Global Citizenship teacher?
Muslim student association sponsor?
Diversity conference planner?
Multi-cultural education trainer?
Restorative Justice facilitator?

You?!

For you who know this intercultural work that I’m always deep in the thick of, you may see this accusation of racism as proof that no matter what a white person does in contexts of color, they will almost inevitably be accused of racism.

But for others…particularly people of color, you will likely be asking a different question:

Well….were you? Racist?

My answer may surprise you.

How could I not be?

Born in the Ozark foothills, raised in a transition zone between rural and suburban, liberal arts educated in Garrison Keillor country in the upper-Midwest, the first time I lived in an area that was not disproportionately white was when I moved to Baltimore after college.

In my first teaching position I worked across the street from central booking, caddy corner to a cemetery, surrounded by infamous drug corners captured by The Wire, and cast in the very real flashing blue lights of police cameras.

Now how in is any 23 year old white girl supposed to make sense of all that? How likely is it that most 23 year olds regardless of color can have the historical, political, social, economic, spiritual perspective to understand the causes and consequences of such a stark human reality?

So…was it true? Was I racist?

Of course I was.

But not on purpose.

I was not raised in a context of deliberate and cultivated bigotry. I was raised in a compassionate Christian household where, above all, my mom insisted our faith was rooted in caring for the most vulnerable in our community. She was a champion for children. She hated bullies and would confront them in schools, church suppers, and super-market aisles. Despite the socially conservative constraints of the Bible Belt, she was bold enough in 1988 to reject the callousness of trickle down solutions and vote for Dukakis.

Her 8 year old staunchly republican daughter was appalled.

Her 36 year old progressive daughter couldn’t be more grateful.

No, my racism was not by personal design. It was by systemic proximity (or more precisely a lack there of) from neighbors who’s narratives could disrupt the mass media education I was getting from Law and Order and the nightly news.

Structural racism does not just keep people of color out. It keeps people of the pale in.

We move through an insulated existence where there IS such a thing as normal. Where there ARE absolute answers. Where you CAN trust authority.

And then at some point we come to the edge of our enclave. With our gaze off in the distance on our endless horizons, we step off the curb we didn’t expect into a pothole we didn’t see, twist our ankle, and collapse in the middle of oncoming traffic.

You want to know why white girls are always crying?

We weren’t raised not to.

And now we (overly) protected lily-white children have wandered into a world full of struggle our communities gated us from seeing.

3 years ago I took a group of public high school students on a study abroad trip to rural England. It was a group that reflected the diversity of their school and country from skin tone to head-covering.

During the day, they visited schools in pastoral settings. At night we would cook together in the kitchen where we would process the discoveries of the day. Many of their conversations with their British peers circled around race and culture.

When Miles told yet another story about yet another English kid comparing him to yet another black celebrity he looked nothing like, he laughed and said…

“You have NO idea how racist you sound.”

As we washed dishes together I asked. “Why do you think it feels so different to you to talk about race here? Why doesn’t their ignorance offend in the same way it would back home?”

After a few jokes about all the things that sound better with a British accent, Chloe was quick to put her finger on the difference.

“If you don’t know about race in America, you just haven’t been paying attention.”

These kids in North Yorkshire growing up amidst sheep farms, they were nestled snug in their culture. Where would they have ever had a chance to make friends with a black kid who could call them a racist?

I could identify. I grew up around sheep with Midwestern drawls. None of them black.

But unlike my planned community of the past or the physical spaces of the present, the virtual spaces most of us occupy today are NOT gated in the same way. There’s no way to not pay attention…unless you’re averting your eyes.

There is a statute of limitations on circumstantial racism. It ends the day we collide with the realization that in our ignorance, our privilege has plowed someone over. If in that moment we retreat, what once was circumstantial becomes premeditated.

Don’t flee the scene. We must bear witness. And then we must decide whether to aid and abet or become first responders.

Despite the risks.

The wounds are deep. So is the fear.

Apply pressure.

Hold.

 

Lullaby for Baltimore

A year ago, I wrote this as we mourned for the pain of our city. A year later, she stirs, wakes, begins to rise.

Tonight, my children are sleeping, but from my roof I can see buildings burning. My children are sleeping, but I can hear the constant hum of helicopters and whine of sirens.

Still…my children sleep.

Other mothers in this city do not know where their children are.

Other mothers had to leave their houses, leave work, leave safety and plunge into the unknown to retrieve their children. They had to worry whether their children would make it home safe on the public busses that shut down and stranded students all over the city. Other mothers live near those burning buildings.

Other mothers have already lost their children.

Tonight before bed we talked to Grandma and Grampa, we played dress-up, we brushed teeth, put on pajamas, picked out stories. Ivy picked out Do Princesses wear hiking boots? Kip picked Professor Wormbog in Search for the Zipperump-a-zoo.

I needed a story, too.

I chose He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands, by Kadir Nelson. I used to sing this book to my children every night. It was a gift for their Baptism. The Inscription from their Uncle Ben and Aunt Sarah reads, “Dear Kip and Ivy, on the occasion of your baptism, we are reminded that you are indeed in good hands, large and small. All our love…”

This beautiful book…

These beautiful children…

This beautiful city…

Yes. Beautiful.

Make no mistake, she will rise. Do not judge her by the color of her flames, but the content of her character.

Her story will unfold not in the destruction of the night but in the creation of the days and weeks and months and years to come as we plunge into the unknown searching for her, determined to bring her home, bind up her wounds, hold her close, whisper prayers in the dark as she rests.

She is in our hands.

Sleep, my love.

Sleep.

Underwater Mountain Movers: What we can learn about leadership through ocean floor topography

Tidal waves and tsunamis shape the world even though they originate in deep unseen spaces.

Today I had the delight of sitting in meaningful and lingering conversation with two very different leaders.

One is running for office in Baltimore. The other is cozied in a corner office in Annapolis. Both are committed to education, empowerment of young people, and positive community transformation. But one will try to move mountains in the politically charged atmosphere of Baltimore governance, the other will quietly create continental drift in a Range on the ocean floor. One will be a household name. The other you would likely never know even if you were in a room with her.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about where we (read I) should stand in order to leverage change. Today I was reminded that we can be catalysts for change in both spaces of high visibility and low visibility. That the quality and impact of societal and system transformations are not necessarily proportional to how visible their architects are.

You don’t have to see the catalyst to see the effect.

Today I saw a quiet leader for the first time.

I don’t mean I had never seen this person before.

I don’t mean that I had never seen a quiet leader before.

I mean I genuinely SAW a person I’ve known for years for who they truly are and the power they actually wield.

You’d never know it if you met her for the first time. She’s a listener. Self-deprecating. Waits a long time before she offers her own thoughts. Affirms those around her. Works tirelessly behind the scenes. Quietly accrues trust from all directions.

She’s an Ocean Bottom Mountain mover. You see a rogue wave, wonder at its passing, and then let it slip your mind as it moves beyond the horizon. All the while, under the radar, she has re-shaped the landscape in ways that will affect the currents for years to come.

UnderwaterMountains

A popular aphorism that may have been said by Harry Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt, or some other wise sage goes something like, “There’s no end to the good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

If I see a success or transformation I know I had a hand in facilitating, do I need to claim credit? Why? What does the effect lose by my calling dibs? What do I lose in the present or the future if people don’t know my involvement?

These questions will be my companions keeping me honest and self-auditing as I myself attempt to work towards the greater good.

Today I realized someone I mistook for a starfish has been a Titan all along. I sat during and after the meeting humbled by this realization. Grateful to have finally glimpsed the long reach of this gentle and benevolent entity. Honored to observe the secrets of her subtle yet persistent influence.

Tidal waves and tsunamis shape the world even though they originate in deep unseen spaces. They may not always get the credit, but we are forever changed by their impact.

Patchwork History (Lest we forget)

Become enfolded in Black History with “Emancipation Revisited” at the Chesapeake Arts Center

This Saturday, Feburary 20th at the Chesapeake Arts Center in Glen Burnie, Maryland, a coalition of Black Churches called the North Arundel Cultural Preservation Society (NACPS) will put on an original play entitled “Emancipation Revisited: Lest We Forget.”

Months ago I met some of the members of the NACPS at the Bates Legacy Center. Surrounded by quilted History, pieced together by hands around the county and state, the story of these women, these churches, this play began to unfold and enfold me.

quilt

Since moving to Baltimore over a decade ago, my life has become increasingly interwoven with Black Lives and Black Matters. Over the last two years especially…I feel this tapestry interlocking with fragments of my own. I am invited deeper into spaces of trust and love…and pain and struggle. Students’ stories. Colleagues’ stories. Friends’ stories. Maryland’s stories. America’s stories.

Stitched Together.

Painstakingly.

I am humbled. I fall silent.

So much work to be done. So many stitches left. But with these hands?

Soft. White.Trembling.

Because this fabric is hallowed, the pattern unfolding, the lighting dim, my stitches are halting. Despite my ineptitude, I believe in this circle, am consoled by the hands that grasp mine.

I am not yet the person I need to be to tell the stories of these encounters. My voice is not strong enough to honor these odysseys.

And anyway… the stories are not mine to tell. Perhaps, when “my” story and “your” story become “our”story, perhaps then it will be time.

Until my words can catch up, I will let my stitches speak louder.

I have come to believe that the only meaningful change that happens in our world occurs through deepening relationships. So even as I labor over this short post, this tiny patch, know that the place I have decided to weave my deepest efforts is not here.

It’s out there.

With you.

Until the day we are truly “we”.

(Lest we forget.)

How to do Real Good in Baltimore…

The road to West Baltimore is paved with good intentions.

As we wrestle with next steps for #OneBaltimore there will be many junctures in the road where we must choose and commit to a direction. Individuals seek to find their path and question how to invest their time, money, and energies.

I present one fellow ramblers humble guide as we wind our way through the crossroads ahead.

Join Up vs. Start Up

Perhaps you have a great idea you’re certain will help our city…just make sure it doesn’t exist yet.

Baltimore is FULL of amazing (and sporadically funded) grassroots organizations, community centers, churches, and schools already rooted in the communities we seeks to help. By joining something, you lend your human capitol to a hard working organization that has laid the foundations already. Your contributions (in whatever form they take) may allow them to scale and raise the visibility of the work they have been doing. What’s more, they will have undoubtedly made a lot of mistakes along the way that you will not have to replicate. Just learn from theirs!

On the other hand, if you have the expertise, network, time, and inspiration to start-up a brand new solution…you probably DON’T need this blog post telling you what to do. On the other hand, there are lots of model programs that have had remarkable community impact in other places. Maybe this is an ideal time for you to use your influence and expertise to bring those models here!

With vs. For

Prepositions are powerful. Mind them.

They tell us about the relationship between one noun and another. One person or place and another. They also tell us about social hierarchies. The best work we can do right now in the city is WITH not FOR. “For” implies a patron client relationship. A giver and a receiver. The active and the passive.

Look for programs where the people in the immediate community are taking leadership roles. Look for organizations who are not “speaking for” but “giving voice.” Look for structures where people are marching hand in hand, not single file. It is so tempting to use our position, our title, to create a distance between ourselves and others. We insulate ourselves through our inaccessibility. We remain unaffected.

There are no strangers here...just unmet friends.
There are no strangers here…just unmet friends.

There is no “us” and “them”. There is only us.

Baltimore tolls for thee.

Transactional vs. Transformational

Should we give of our money or give of our time?

Yes.

Both are needed. Both are impactful…but their effects on the inner landscape are markedly different.

Psychologically when we give from our monetary resources, it can create the illusion that our debt to our fellow human beings is paid. They need. I pay. I’m done. Consider how many times we’ve heard (or said) “I pay my taxes so…” Usually what comes next is either about someone else who needs to do something we shouldn’t have to. Shovel our street. Police our community. Educate our children. This phrase is used to absolve us of calls to obligation.

We love our bill of rights…we’re not so keen on our bill of obligations.

Giving money can actually be easier and safer than giving of ourselves. We don’t necessarily feel anymore connected or compelled by the cause than before the donation. And if it is purely functioning to alleviate the cognitive dissonance raised by our conscience…then perhaps we need to question whether we’re giving the right thing.

The Creative Alliance holds a free family night where folks can make peace art and #BeMore together
The Creative Alliance holds a free family night where folks can make peace art and #BeMore together

Remember, too, that money is but one kind of wealth. Communities that lack monetary capital are often abundant in untapped social resources and unnoticed sources of resilience. Ask what insights they can offer you.

Sustainable vs. Suitcase Projects

I worked with a phenomenal community organizer in Nairobi. Ken is from Kibera (one of the largest slums in Africa) and one room home served as a community hub where he hosted civic clubs, meetings, even political campaigns. When the US Embassy had visitors they wanted to see Kibera, they called Ken. He had landed good job working with youth at the YMCA and made enough money to move out of Kibera, but he chose to remain living where he worked. He was committed. He was present. He was dependable. You could always find and call on Ken.

Contrast this with the church groups, tour groups, development groups who would come into his home for…a day, a week, a month…run a camp, complete a project, build a school, and then be gone forever. Ken called these “Suitcase Projects.” No one in place to manage them. No mechanism to sustain or maintain them over time.

Many of us in the next few weeks will take a collection, make a drop-off, paint a clever picketing sign, attend an event…but what will we be doing a month from now? A year? I would challenge all of us that after an initial survey of the options, we pick and stick to one particular initiative.

Outreach vs. In-reach

If we can shape the landscape within, we will see it reflected in the landscape without.

Ask yourself: “Why am I doing this?” Whatever the “this” of which you speak, if you hope to change others without changing yourself…turn back now. If you hope to get others to understand their own frailties and blind spots but refuse to face your own…

You will fail. You will be disappointed. You will become cynical.

You will throw up your hands and say, “I tried.” “They didn’t want my help.” “They don’t know what’s good for them.”

You do not need to rescue.

You are not here to save.

Work like “this” reveals the dark and treacherous valleys of our own hearts. Change doesn’t always feel good. Prepare yourself for uncomfortable moments. Awkward conversations. Conflicts and misunderstandings. Name your fears with others. Talk about them with people you trust. Confess them to people you’re learning to trust.

Expect to see the greatest changes within. Not without.

Understanding vs. Confusion

“I understand.”

This phrase seems harmless enough. But do we? Can we? Don’t confuse sympathy with empathy. Be wary of faulty comparisons that you share to show how you have struggled, too. Your intentions, though good, can come off as trivializing the deep wounds and history of the community you seek to work with.

For many of us, our desire to volunteer is motivated by a desire to understand the puzzle of people and places in our city. I would suggest an alternative goal:

Seek to be confused.

Margaret Wheatley writes a beautiful essay on the topic, warning us from rushing to quickly to overly simplistic answer and solutions simply to get rid of the discomfort of confusion. “We cannot be creative if we refuse to be confused.”

Do not run from uncomfortable emotions that may arise when you face stark injustice and blatant inequality. “Compassion” literally means, “to suffer with.” NOT “to solve for.”

CONNECTworking

Whatever you do, try to make your work visible and accessible. Let it inspire others. Invite people along for the journey both literally and virtually. If you lack courage, bring a buddy. Find good (but different) folks and follow them into new spaces. Ask how you can connect these new spaces with those you’ve come from.

#BeMore Peaceful
#BeMore Peaceful

Be the synapses you wish to see in the world!

Think of this as HUMAN infrastructure and yourself as a CIVIC engineer. The work you do will support the physical developments and renovations to come. The work YOU do is more cost effective, though, and is less likely to rile the neighbors and cause traffic delays.

Leadership Structures are changing. Social Hierarchies leveling. Systems becoming more adaptive and overlapping. Whether you are leading or joining in the work ahead, we must be open to the emergence of new leaders. We must expect that reform and renewal will come from unexpected directions. We must give ourselves permission to be surprised…

…by gang members and board members,

…by students and retirees,

…by others. By ourselves.

I have found myself on either side of these dichotomies. I have failed. I have fucked up…

AND SO CAN YOU!

A wise nun once told me, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” This is gonna be messy. It won’t be anywhere near perfect.

But bring your good. It’s good enough.

Rebuilding the road to Baltimore Love

We have confused our love of a landscape with a love of the community. But can we claim to love Baltimore without loving the people within it? Can we claim to understand the city without seeking to understand its citizens?

The strange story of my deep love of Baltimore begins with an unlikely matchmaker.

“Good Morning Sisters and Brothers!”

Whenever Ralph Moore speaks to a group of people (large or small) he begins with this heartfelt greeting.I always waited in anticipation for Mr. Moore’s “address” during the morning faculty meeting at St. Frances Academy because I knew he would tell me something I didn’t know or help me love someone I didn’t…yet.

A fixture in Baltimore’s civil society, Mr. Moore has long been a champion for various marginalized residents of the city. When I knew him he ran the community center next to St. Frances Academy. He hosted career fairs, neighborhood Halloween nights, peace camps in the summer, clothes drives in the winter. He was also tasked with giving the newly arrived Jesuit Volunteers a tour of this city where we would work for the span of a year.

A love affair between a 23 year-old Midwestern white girl and “Charm City” was no sure thing.

Fresh out of college in Minnesota, I had no context to understand the vast cultural and regional divides between growing up in southern Missouri and growing up in the inner city. It would have been so easy for my fledgling relationship with this complicated landscape to go awry, mired in mistrust and misunderstanding.

Instead, I first saw the city reflected in the eyes of Ralph, one of its devoted children. When somebody gazes at a space with such committed love in their eyes…well, the courage of that devotion can be contagious. Mural 2 Ralph didn’t begin our guided tour of Baltimore with the Inner Harbor. Didn’t take us to Camden Yards. He didn’t wax poetic about Natty Boh or Domino Sugar. Never once mentioned Edgar Allen Poe.

Instead, he began with the busses. Ralph, has never gotten a driver’s license. This was one way, he said, to always remain in solidarity with the working class and low-income communities he wished to serve. He said there was no better way to get to know a city than to hop on the nearest public transportation line. The physical infrastructure of a place reflects the human infrastructure of the society.

Ralph noted that most of the contiguous transit lines in Baltimore (including the light rail) run north to south, not east to west. This makes it easier for the higher income Baltimore County residents to patronize the inner harbor, Camden yards, Ravens’ stadium and for Southern residents to shop at the malls and eat at the restaurants in northern Towson. It makes it harder, however, for the low-income population located east and west (and those most likely to use public transportation) to get to work, to the super market, to school.

“Why would that be? That doesn’t make any sense!”

The same reason, he said, there are no metro stops in the richer areas of DC such as around Georgetown. Yes, those stops would benefit young people, but they would also make it easier for “them” to get “here.” He noted that MLK Boulevard, just like in so many other cities, serves as the dividing line between those in Baltimore who have and those who have not.

Before this moment, I had always seen roads as something that got you places…not something that kept you FROM places.

Ralph didn’t stop there. He pointed out that while northern cities have “good sides” and “bad sides” of town, southern cities like Baltimore have pockets of poverty bumping up against enclaves of wealth. This, he said was due to the necessity of having slave quarters in close proximity to the masters homes in which the slaves served. Though slavery was abolished, the structures that supported it remained, the juxtaposition of poverty made more visible, more present, more discomforting to those, in more well-off areas.

He went on not to praise but to critique the Inner Harbor. He spoke of promises made and broken by politicians, about over investment in the commercial waterfront to the neglect of the nearby West Side communities.

Perhaps it seems strange that romance with an urban landscape would begin with such stark realities, but what Ralph helped me realize is that to understand people, you must understand the places that have shaped them. As Winston Churchill once observed, “We shape our buildings; thereafter our buildings shape us.” Mural 1 Many of us have been selective in our love of the city. We have allowed ourselves to be shaped by parts of it, but few of us have given ourselves over to the whole.

There are those of us in the city who have never ventured west of MLK. Never renewed our license at the MVA at Mondawmin Mall. Never realized that the gothic castle we pass on 83 as we enter downtown is not a fairyland but a federal prison. We have confused our love of a landscape with a love of the community.

But can we claim to love Baltimore without loving the people within it? Can we claim to understand the city without seeking to understand its citizens? All its citizens? We become uncomfortable when the city view we love is obstructed by the people we don’t know how to love… …yet.

As we clean-up and start re-building in our city, our eyes are rightly turning towards each other, but they must also turn to spaces. We must ask if our spaces are equally inviting and accessible not just to various races, but various age groups. Is there a place for the “whiteheads” to enlighten the “young bucks.” Is there a place for the children to enliven their elders?

How do we grow spaces we can fall in love with as we fall (back) in love with each other? This is not a Utopian dream. Ralph Moore, his wife Dana, and people like them have been forging accessible spaces at boundaries and border crossings for decades. His community center with its peace camps in the summer and career fairs in the winter is a multi-generational space where the needs of all community members might be revealed and addressed.

One thing I Believe (Hon) about #OneBaltimore is that it is about to undergo a dramatic reshaping. The lines that have divided us are eroding and we must choose whether we will invest in walls or build bridges instead…because on the other side of the valley, the love of our life may be waiting.

#BeMoreCircles – Baltimore’s Summer of Peace

I often wake in the morning with ideas and insights my subconscious labored over in the night. This morning I came to consciousness with my son’s little body curled against me…and the  image of dialogue groups scattered throughout the city throughout the summer in public spaces around public events.

Intentional, accessible conversations and reflections on the fringes of First Thursdays, or during Concerts in the Park, or after the public pools let out. All summer we will be gathering together. As we do, we will be wondering how to reconcile the beauty of humans together (which we see daily in our city) with the chaos of humans together (which we saw on Monday).

Why not wander towards each other so we can wonder out loud together?

#BeMoreCircles

Building bridges between communities, between generations, between races. Just. Between. …seems to be at least ONE solution towards the #OneBaltimore we are beginning to see emblazoned on poster board and message boards around our city and throughout social Media. To some, this may seem idealistic or unattainable, but there is a long standing method that facilitates this process…

…Speaking with each other.

Not speaking to or at or even for but WITH.

Too often when we gather with crowds, we go with our friends, and we stay with our friends. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that there is not a mechanism or space to make or invite new meaningful connections with others, even if we wanted to. Open spaces for dialogue surrounding public events could change that.

Summer of Peace
At my high school, we created community in the public space of our courtyards through sidewalk chalk and the question: “What does a blended school mean to you?”

So how might this look?

I can imagine myself trekking up to the Pagoda on a Sunday afternoon, finding some shade a decent distance from the concert stage, laying down a few more blankets than I need, and propping up a poster that simply says “#BeMoreCircles :Speak and Listen here”. People wander over. Share some snacks. And get to wondering.

Perhaps we have weekly “Points to Ponder” suggested on a #BeMoreCircles Facebook page. Perhaps we’ve established weekly themes, so there is some continuity between these organic conversations that might pop up around the city. And perhaps afterwards people can take their insights from that physical meeting and share them in that virtual space. Continue the connections there. Build upon these new relationships.

For some this may feel like TOO much. For some, not enough.

Think of all that might go wrong!

What if someone just takes my snacks?

What if someone sits down and never leaves?

What if folks start arguing?

What if..

These are fair concerns. Something else to consider is the simple fact that even if we are gathering in public spaces, we are gathering in “our” public spaces. We are venturing to the events in “our” park, but we are likely unaware or uncomfortable venturing into “other people’s” parks. Are they safe? Am I welcome?

Something like this takes courage…and perhaps at least a little training.

I might mention, here, that I have a degree in conflict resolution, training as a multi-cultural educator, and have spent hours in and beyond the classroom locally and internationally sitting with groups of people and asking questions around culture, creativity, and conflict.

I only say this to acknowledge that the commitment to peacemaking is indeed a long journey and we are all at different places as we seek to understand the roots of conflict in ourselves and our fellow human beings.

But on a picnic blanket adjacent to a concert seems like a safe place to start.

If you are intrigued by this possibility, reach out. I’ve tagged a number of my peacemaking sisters and brother in this post hoping to get a conversation started. Asking what we need. Who we might partner with. How we might train folks quickly for a Baltimore Summer of Peace.